Saturday, June 2, 2007

Steenburn: "Silent Echoes of Johnsonville"

Colonel Donald H. Steenburn's Silent Echoes of Johnsonville [(OP 2nd Ed. 2001, from orig. 1994, Elk River Press) Pages total/main: 143/121. Softcover, maps, photos, notes, biblio] is a military history of Nathan Bedford Forrest's highly successful Johnsonville Raid. Although utilizing predominately southern sources and written largely from the Confederate viewpoint, the book's account of Forrest's effective but temporary blockade of the Tennessee River and his destruction of the massive Union supply depot is actually pretty good. On the other hand, the hyperbole and generally worshipful tone of the author's description of Forrest's martial abilities throughout gets a bit grating.

Multiple errors in the background material give Silent Echoes a shaky start. Additionally, the writing is choppy and, in the interests of letting the soldiers tell their story unhindered, the author often shies away from analyzing the merits of competing sources. For instance, Steenburg writes his lengthy account of the Confederate bombardment, fully giving the impression that the artillery alone caused the massive losses in shipping, buildings, and materiel. Immediately following, the author provides a number of sources from both sides claiming that the fires were deliberately set by Union soldiers to keep the depot out of the hands of the enemy (who were assumed to be crossing the river). These contradictions pass with little commentary and no real effort is made to weigh the competing evidence in order to arrive at the most likely conclusion. However, if I had a vote it would be for the primacy of the latter.

Steenburg concludes with a short description of post war salvage operations and the current state of the site, largely buried underwater in the wake of TVA projects. Quirky, uneven, and flawed, Silent Echoes is all of those, but it's an intriguing failure and I would still recommend it to forgiving readers with a narrow interest in this particular raid. The operation itself is fascinating, and, as far as I know, this is the only book length study available.

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